Why your startup’s office can live without a ping pong ball table

Tech startups have popularized employee-friendly offices, and workspaces infused with recreational elements. But these frills often mask an opposite reality.

Visit the offices of nearly any tech startup that’s made it past at least one round of institutional funding, and you’ll see beautiful, colored walls, open-plan workspaces, ergonomic seating, and the obligatory foosball and ping-pong tables.

The unparalleled success of Silicon Valley’s tech firms, whose disruptive technologies have created billion dollar industries—seemingly overnight—has upended conventional wisdom on business models and workplace practices. New startups and established corporate entities alike are emulating some of the innovative approaches deployed by the tech giants in everything from personnel management to product development. MasterCard’s headquarters in New York, for example, aims to encourage collaboration and creativity with gaming spaces in the building and conference rooms with piles of Lego.

The morale enhancing effects of a good workspace are clear. A comfortable working environment certainly makes employees more productive, and a well-designed office space can enhance opportunities for exchange of ideas and collaboration. For tech companies, the friendly, fun atmosphere spurs creativity and also serves as a useful recruitment tool to attract talent.

But while bean bags and nap pods are the more visible markings of a good work environment, they are far more the only or even the most impactful of the elements required to create an employee-friendly office. In a list of companies with the highest employee satisfaction compiled by Payscale, the new generation tech companies constituted 10 of the top 50. But, the companies which boasted the happiest employees were those whose efforts at promoting employee wellbeing centered around ensuring a healthy work-life balance, with flexible working hours, including the ability to work from home and a culture that promoted autonomy over and ownership of one’s work. Other drivers of satisfaction reported by employees included having a sense of purpose and high job meaning, the ability to grow and develop through career development programs, and benefits such as good health coverage, paid family leave, and daycare arrangements for young children.

Compared against these more foundational prerequisites of job satisfaction, it is unsurprising then that the “fun and play” oriented frills did not rank particularly high. The benefits of these perks do exist, but only when layered on top of a broader company culture and institutional infrastructure that promotes employee health, well-being and work-life balance.

Recreational facilities in offices blur the separation between personal time and work time and end up making long hours routine and expected

Game rooms are meant to balance the stress and rigors of work with some respite and recreation. Too often, however, these office amenities become instruments of driving precisely the opposite of a culture that aims to balance work and personal life. While no one can deny the appeal of a post lunch snooze, well-rested employees typically do not need nap-pods on a regular basis. Nor does an eight-hour workday accommodate much time for lengthy games of table tennis. In companies where these facilities are being used heavily, chances are the work hours are stretching well beyond 12 hours a day and employees social lives and recreational activities are increasingly being restricted to meals and in-office games with their colleagues. And having these facilities blurs the separation between personal time and work time and means managers can push their teams to work longer more and more frequently, till the long hours become routine and expected. Productivity tends to slump when you know you’re going to have to be in the office past 9pm anyway—you take longer and more frequent breaks without really getting the benefit of fully disconnecting from work.

This cycle of inefficiency also affects managers, who become less systematic and methodical in creating and assigning work. Rather than clearly defining scope and ensuring that employee’s time is used well, randomness and poor planning creep in. Instead of finding elegant and intelligent solutions that minimize work, problem solving begins to heavily utilize the brute force method of allocating more time and resources to the problem.

The long and intense work hours often seen at startups have more to do managerial deficiencies, poor planning and ineffective scope management than anything intrinsic to the nature of the business.

Early stage startups are known for having intense and long work hours. This is only partially due to being understaffed and resource constrained. More often, the daily firefighting results simply from less experienced founders not planning the work well enough or inefficiently tackling problems with long hours and excess work. The foosball table meanwhile, helps distract employees from realizing how much of their personal life they are giving up.

This hectic work pace can work well for the graduates in their early twenties, fresh from the all-nighters and junk food diet of university dorms, but is less viable for older employees, and becomes unsustainable as the startup matures. The long hours and games may build a certain level of camaraderie that is beneficial for the company, but long-term employee wellbeing necessitates rest and time with family and friends outside of work. Moreover, true camaraderie is built in a team not over games and recreation, but by working on meaningful problems and facing real challenges together.

Perhaps an alternative to fancy office games might be to allow employees the time and space to actually leave work, unwind, and rest and come back the next day mentally fresh to do productive work.